Abseil Fundamentals

This guide covers concepts common to all work in Abseil. The topics covered within this guide are sort of a kitchen sink of the following:

  • Important policy decisions and design patterns useful for Abseil code
  • Useful fundamental code that all Abseil-derived code should know about
  • Inner machinery required for fundamental Abseil code, but likely not important from a development standpoint

Abseil Style Guidelines

Abseil code adheres to the official Google C++ Style Guide. Additional constraints/concerns within Abseil code, where they diverge from the above, appear below.

Abseil Exception Policy

Google (rather famously) does not use exceptions within its production code. We of course do not require that you adhere to such a policy. However, you should be aware of some repercussions on your code base.

We do not believe there is good engineering reason for move constructors to throw. At most, we will allow move constructors to throw because of allocation. Within Abseil code, move constructors will not throw except because of allocation if compiled without -DABSL_ALLOCATOR_NOTHROW. Holding move constructors to this standard allows much better optimization, especially in conjunction with standard library behavior (std::vector resizes much more efficiently with non-throwing move constructors).

In general we will try to support exceptions in reasonable APIs and designs. We are, however, opinionated about where exception-flexibility is trumped by performance. We will try to be clear about where exceptions are a bad design choice and mark things noexcept when possible. Do not confuse conceptual support for exceptions with endorsement of exceptions in all places - if your hash functor throws, you’re on your own.

Be aware of the meaning of noexcept: this is not a promise that exceptions do not happen, it is a promise that if an exception escapes that API, the process will end with std::terminate().


Abseil code is designed to work with targets built with the LeakSanitizer (LSan), a memory leak detector that is integrated within the AddressSanitizer (ASan) as an additional component, or which can be used standalone. Leak checking is enabled by default in all ASan builds.

For more information on the LeakSanitizer, see the Address Sanitizer docs

To enable LSan on your builds including Abseil code (using Bazel):

# Enable just LSan.
# Note that LSan requires Clang instead of gcc.
# You probably want to define a crosstool or bazel configuration to
# do this properly - provided for demonstration purposes only.
$ CC=clang BAZEL_COMPILER=llvm bazel build --copt=-DLEAK_SANITIZER \
    --linkopt=-fsanitize=leak *target*

# Enable ASan, which also includes LSan.
$ CC=clang BAZEL_COMPILER=llvm bazel build --copt=-DADDRESS_SANITIZER \
    --copt=-fsanitize=address --linkopt=-fsanitize=address *target*

The debugging/leak_check.h header file contains several utility functions to customize leak checking behavior within your code. Consult that header file for more information.

The Abseil Base Library

Fundamental Abseil code resides in the absl/base directory. Technically, these files are not a cohesive “library” in the normal sense. What distinguishes them as base files is that they have no outside dependencies; absl/base header files only depend on other absl/base header files. The base library contains fundamental code that all other Abseil code depends on. As a result, the contents of base are kept to the minimum of what is absolutely necessary.

This base library consists of configuration files, some required Abseil utilities for core code, and initialization primitives.

The Base library’s configuration header files consist of the following:

  • policy_checks.h
    Enforces Abseil policies that can be enforced at build time, such as minimum compiler and library versions. For more information, consult the Abseil Platforms Guide.
  • macros.h
    Provides macros used within Abseil code for language features.
  • optimization.h
    Provides several platform-dependent macros for implementing optimization techniques.
  • config.h
    Provides macros for determining platform and compiler support. For more information, consult the Feature Check Macros guide.

Additionally, the Base library includes one utility header file:

  • casts.h
    Provides a few useful extensions for performing safer type casts.

Consult that header file for more information.

The Base library’s concurrency-related files, which are included in “base” because they are fundamental to initialization and thread management, consist of the following:

  • call_once.h
    Provides a primitive for ensuring a function is called exactly once, which is used during object initialization.
  • thread_annotations.h
    Provides a set of annotations to use within your code identifying intended behavior in concurrent environments.

These APIs are documented separately within the Synchronization Guide rather than within this guide, because they are strongly related to the other abstractions within that guide.